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STEM – Not enough or too much?

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Henri Azibert

Contributor: Henri Azibert

The acronym STEM, (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), has received much attention lately, primarily with the implication that the topics it defines have not received sufficient attention.  Somehow the inference is that other educational programs have been dominating higher education, our lives, our ways of thinking. However, this view can only be held by those who are not well versed in science and its adjunct disciplines.

Liberal arts, often thought of as the antithesis of STEM, have been growing in curricula, programs and studies, so the conclusion that STEM’s influence is waning and should be invigorated has been advanced.  A quick look around our latest development in culture should reassure those who are concerned.

The brilliance of science and technology is that it is based on objective reality.  It does not mean that it is devoid of problems, biases, and errors, but it does mean that over time these shortcomings do get improved, advanced, or corrected, and that solutions are perfected.  Technology and engineering, relying on math and science, devise and build machines whose performance increases over time. Whether in transportation or communication we can see the steady and astonishing improvements.  We have gone from the mechanization of travel on land to spaceships that can reach other planets within a century. We have gone from Morse code communication to instant video access to anyone across the globe in the same, relatively short, time period.

Meanwhile, the study of dead languages remains the study of dead languages; political “science” is more focused on documenting political institutions rather than on improving them; archeology studies what happened in the past, but not so much for the purpose of improving our current conditions.  This is not to say that we do not get more accurate information, but somehow it has much trouble filtering in, or changing our existence.  

Technology on the other hand, changes our lives in ways we often fail to even recognize.  Historically it has been the driver of change in social organization. Primarily through the development of more sophisticated weapons that allowed the group with the superior technology to dictate to others what to do, whether it was the rise of the Roman empire from its structured army of legionnaires, or the invasion and domination of the Americas by Europeans, weaponry developed from superior technology drove these sweeping changes in cultures and civilizations.

And yes, it is happening today, and probably at an even much larger scale than in these historical references.  The social media revolution is a good example. It has been driven by these small devices we hold in our hands, that can contact us with anyone and just about any body of knowledge across the globe.  No more sending a letter and waiting a week for a reply, no more searching cumbersome indices in libraries to find out only the answers contained in that location. Access is immediate and gratifying. We can remain in touch with all our friends and acquaintances no matter where you or they are.  And then, artificial intelligence is around the corner to further improve and accelerate our knowledge, our understanding, our technology and engineering skills.

There are good intended consequences, but there can also be some negative ones we have difficulty in grasping and dealing with.  The use of the technology can be, and has been, subverted for sinister purposes as well. Unfortunately, using technology to dominate and rule others is not new.  The spread of hate and fear we have seen recently, leading to divisions within what was once a much more cohesive society is a direct result of this technologically driven advancement.   The ability to track, listen to and manipulate individuals is only likely to increase with further advancements in data gathering and data mining. Technology seems to have a mind and destiny of its own, not necessarily paying attention to what humans need or want.

So, to those who complain that STEM does not receive enough attention, a word of caution as to what you ask for.  But then again, I would much rather live five hundred years from now rather than five hundred years ago. We should all enjoy the ride, and maybe use some liberal arts training to guide STEM towards the common good.

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